The Inventor Down in the Basement

8 Feb

Oldtown still had relics of old, outdated technology, such as its coal gas system of night street lighting and its electro-trolley streetcars. But with a leading industry of petroleum refining and chemical production, the gigantic city contained an array of research laboratories and an army of independent single, private experimenters. One of the most persistent and ambitious of these latter happened to be a middle-aged inspector of the town gas system, Jacob Stormer.

This tinkerer had never studied at Oldtown University and was mainly self-educated. He was known for having a limitless curiosity about nearly all fields and subjects. His municipal employment enabled him to support himself, a wife, and a young child, as well as keep a well-equipped research lab in the basement of his bungalow in the blue-collar workers’ section of the city. His cellar projects were his one and only hobby, but they dominated most of his free time.

The first and most stubborn critic of what Jacob was doing downstairs was his small, blond-haired wife, Nell. “You are taking great risks playing around with chemicals and gases,” she said to him many times, in many different ways. “The game you are trying to play at is a very dangerous one. Think of your wife and your child, if not of yourself down there with explosive substances.”

But the muscular, middle-aged experimenter would merely smile. “This activity in the cellar gives me a lot of pleasure, and it is going to result in an invention that will make us millionaires,” he told her again and again.

Nell preferred that the son, Jack, play outdoor and stay out of the house whenever their father happened to be puttering around in his den below-ground. Their mother grew increasingly worried, nearly sullen, about what her husband was up to when he was home from his job.

Jacob did not reveal to his wife the nature of what specifically he was after in his private work. That way, there was less chance for any outsider to find out about the brilliant breakthrough he aspired to make in the area of fuel creation.

Little Jack, only nine years old and in the third grade of elementary school, had no outside friends beyond the family. As a result, he came to read a lot of library books and things he found lying about the house. But his main pleasure was having private conversations with his father when the latter was not occupied in experiments down in the basement.

The boy displayed a lively interest in scientific matters and liked to pepper his father with questions inspired by his wide reading in many different places.

It became easy for Jacob to allow his son to climb down with him into the basement lab so they could discuss the interests that they shared.

The father found that Jack absorbed everything he deigned to reveal to him in the quiet privacy below the bungalow.

“The most important inventions are often the simplest ones,” Jacob said to his son. “They occur in some cases when we connect two objects, substances, or ideas that are not usually connected with each other. That is what I am attempting here in my tiny laboratory.

“If we look about the streets of Oldtown, we see that both the large and the small vehicles run on gasoline that is refined from petroleum pumped out of the ground. But that is a resource which will in a few years reach its limit and be exhausted. What will we be doing then?”

“What is the answer to that, father?” excitedly asked young Jack.

The would-be inventor grinned. “When we look at our mountains of trash and refuse, what stands out? Thousands of tons of plastics are piling up all around our city. We don’t know what to do with this useless garbage, so we try to bury it underground, but it is impossible to keep up with all the bags, sacks, bottles, and containers of all sorts that the public uses each day.

“We have become a plastic society and can’t figure out what to do with all the waste material that is generated, used, and then discarded.

“But the answer is right in front of us, Jack. We turn it into gasoline to power our cars, buses, and trucks. That is the solution.

“When I find an effective way to accomplish that, we will become wealthy people, my boy,” beamed Jacob with a gleam in his gray eye.

It took months to construct an air-tight stainless steel heating chamber in one corner of the rectangular basement.

Jack hurried to receive permission from his mother after coming home from school to join his father downstairs. “You cannot stay there too long,” Nell was apt to tell him, “because there is your homework to finish before we all sit down together for supper at seven.”

Jacob attempted to explain what he was about without becoming too technically detailed.

“What I want to do is produce a useable fuel through the chemical decomposition of plastics at a very elevated temperature under pressure. It should be similar to what happens when coke, town gas, or liquid hydrocarbons are produced in Oldtown’s existing industries every day. But it is not an easy task to convert any plastic into a fuel that has value. There are difficult problems that have to be solved. That is why I have made my steel oven air-tight, with all the oxygen that could cause problems removed.

“My objective is to break down these various plastics with heat and pressure, similarly to how nature did that ages ago, as in forming our coal deposits. But there are great difficulties involved, Jack.

“The most popular and common plastics used in everyday life today are polyethylene and polypropylene. I call them PE and PP, to simplify the whole business. These two substances are not at all easy to break down and depolymerize by using high heat. Even our operating recycling plants have a hard time dealing with PE and PP. Household appliances, bottle caps, meat wrappers, and milk containers are stubborn objects to liquefy into any kind of fuel. I don’t even try to deal with styrofoam, which is unsuitable for any kind of transformation at all. You can understand, my son, why I feel such deep frustration with the slow pace of what I am attempting.”

Jack’s face brightened with an encouraging smile. “I know you can do it and make the gasoline fuel you want, father. If I knew how to help you with it, I certainly would. There must be a way of doing it, there must.”

Jacob drew his son to himself and hugged him with paternal emotion.

Nell became increasingly concerned about the possible hazards involved in the experimentation being done in the basement of their house. She nagged and expressed her fears whenever an opportunity to do so arose.

The evening supper table, with the three of them present, offered such an occasion for her.

“I had a terrifying dream last night,” she said as she came to the table to eat after bringing the pot with the main course there. “Do you want to hear what it was about? There was a loud explosion down in our cellar and it splattered some kind of liquid plastic all over the lower walls of our cement foundation. It was horrible. I woke up in order to put an end to what I was witnessing. Maybe it was some kind of mysterious warning that you should stop what you’re doing before it’s too late. That could be the meaning of what I saw last night.”

She looked at her husband across the table, frowning and focusing her coffee eyes on his face.

Jacob gave her a rocklike look for a few moments, then turned to his son and asked him a question.

“How was school today, Jack? Did you study anything in the area of science? Tell me about it.”

The boy described a short lesson on celestial astronomy. His mother had to conceal the anger that she felt at her spouse’s evasive tactic.

The topic of the inventor’s activities had been ignored once again.

Jacob’s happiest hours after work were those spent in experimentation below in the basement, and the high points of that time were when his son was present to hear him explain what it was that he was engaged in.

“I am testing various methods of what I call the catalytic degradation of plastics such as PE and PP. These materials are being melted, but not burned, in the vacuum of the furnace chamber that I constructed. My goal is to turn the plastics first into diesel fuel, but further on into pure gasoline.

“My plan is to use various materials as catalysts for the transformation of these plastic substances. I have already tested a compound mixture of silica and alumina, but without any success. Then I tried a number of different acid catalysts, and today I am continuing to advance down my list of potential candidates. In the future, I intend to obtain and go forward with what are termed zeolite catalysts of various sorts.

“My work down here seems to have no end to it.” He smiled benignly at his only child. “What did you study about science in school today, Jack?”

“I guess the main subject we covered was the radio spectrum. Most of what the teacher talked about was microwave radiation and the modern miracles that have been developed using it.”

The father gave a short laugh. “I think that I would be very thankful for a miraculous answer to my problems like the microwave.” He fell silent, his gray eyes focused on those of his son, of a darker shade than his own.

Jacob was never later to determine at what precise moment he made a decision to begin testing the effect of microwave radiation inside the vacuum chamber in which plastics were being broken down.

Positive results began to appear as soon as a microwave generating device was mounted within the vacuum chamber. Jacob grew exhilarated over the clear advantages of the new method that seemed to have been inspired by remarks made by his nine-year old son.

“These new electromagnetic waves are helping the volatile gases break away from the plastics quickly and completely,” he explained to Jack one afternoon after the boy came home from school. “They make the condensation of the gases into liquids that can become fuels much easier than before. And I owe the inspiration for all of this to you alone, Jack,” he said with a chuckle. “I predict that when you grow up you will become an inventor, but a brighter one than your father has been up to now.”

Both of them grinned and laughed a little.

It was the end of the first week of June and the last day of the school year for Jack Storm, who was certain he had passed all his tests and was ready to advance one grade forward in the fall.

His mother was quite surprised to see him return home so early, then remembered what the date was and its meaning for her son.

“You have an entire summer ahead for you,” she smiled at him as he stepped into the kitchen. “What do you intend to be doing with all your free time now?”

In the back of his mind, the young fellow saw himself down in the cellar talking with his father and learning all he could at his age about the transmutation of plastics into gasoline to fuel vehicles.

But he knew better than to say this outright to his mother.

“I plan to be walking outside a lot, especially down in the city park.
And there are a lot of books I want to take out of the public library and read, especially the ones on science.” He smiled at her, then went to his room to change his clothes.

No more homework or textbook reading! the liberated child thought to himself.

As soon as his mother had gone outside to gather up the washed clothes that were drying on a line of ripe, Jack went to the basement door, opened it, and started down the stairs leading to his father’s cellar den.

His joyful hope for a happy afternoon session down there was rising through his mental state when the explosion occurred.

In less than five seconds red and yellow flames engulfed the basement.

Jack lost his balance and his legs collapsed, causing him to fall into the spreading inferno of fire that was in command all over the basement.

The boy had no opportunity to search for or find his father, for Jack was no longer alive by the time his body was incinerated by the blast that came out of the vacuum chamber when PE and PP were being depolymerized and turned into a potential useful fuel.

The mass media of Oldtown, both newspapers and electronic channels, called it a miracle that Jacob Storm survived the explosion and fire in his basement laboratory. A month of hospitalization left him able to walk and move his arms and hands, but there were awful skin scarring caused by ultra-hot flames carrying molecules of molten plastic.

Nell never forgave her husband for the tragic loss of their one child.
Although she thought of leaving him, she convinced herself that he needed her more than ever before in their years together.

Jacob himself made a pledge to her while he lay in a hospital bed.

“I shall never again fool around with dangerous materials and methods.
My days as a would-be inventor are over, once and for all.”

Nell beamed at him with a sad smile.

“You can go on with your interest, Jacob, but not at home, down in the basement. I talked with your doctor about it, and he agreed with me that the inventing work should go on, but in a new place.

“He owns a vacant building that he cannot rent out, and he told me that you could use the large basement section there, once you are able to move about. Isn’t that most considerate of him?”

“Indeed, it is,” said the inventor who was now back in business.


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